Brighton Artists’ Open Houses

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Each weekend throughout May Brighton’s painters, photographers, sculptures and printers throw open their doors for Artists’ Open Houses – a month long celebration of creativity showcased from living rooms all over the city.

For many, the thought of knocking on a stranger’s door and wandering their house is an odd one. But once you’ve crossed that first threshold, I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. From screen printed furniture, framed photography and architecture-inspired sketches to bronze busts, leather bags and full sized oil paintings there’s a lot to choose from. And all for free.

UK Contemporary Open House was a particular highlight with large, expressive paintings, stencil art and photography as well as works from Cassette Lord, the graffiti artists who spray’s they city’s junction boxes with his now iconic cassette art.

Nigel French & Guests (photography, screen prints and woodwork), 21A Brunswick Square (photography, illustration and graphic art) and London House in Ditchling (modern oil paintings), are also really worth a look.

And for the hungry among you, the food can be as much a highlight as the art. Anita and Sarala’s pop up cafe was pulling in the punters at Art and Indian Tapas on Worcester Villas in Hove, while coffee and cake took centre stage at The House of Solomon Gray, served from artistically decorated mugs in the small, sunny garden. Photos & Furnishings, on Queen’s Garden, has offered a particularly spectacular array of foody treats over the past three weekends such as pancakes, scotch eggs, rum infused Eccles cakes, orange & ginger biscuits and mini toad in the hole. Phew!

Ending next weekend, there’s still a chance to check it out. Pick up a guide from a cafe or shop in town or download the guide: http://www.aoh.org.uk/May-2013-home

CanTina Brighton

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Supper clubs, the underground eating houses replicating the paladares of Cuba and Prohibition speakeasies of 1950s America, have easily captured the UK’s imagination. From mussels & prosecco to art-themed dining and bourgeoisie burgers the choices are endless.

But with the big corporates jumping on the bandwagon, and pop ups, supper clubs and underground eating houses now being diluted with manufactured, marketing-led concepts and entrepreneurs willing to cash in on their popularity they’re becoming less real, more gimmicky and not quite as pocket friendly.

To me, a good supper club is no different from a good restaurant. It should serve fresh, local, seasonal produce, come recommended and be more about the substance than the style. Though a little doesn’t hurt. So when I met Tina, AKA CanTina Brighton, at a foody event over a year ago and heard her speak passionately about Brighton’s produce, I knew I had to try her food.

Hosted in the long, slim dining rooms of her Regency apartment in Brighton, CanTina’s supper club is an informal, sociable affair.

Welcomed by a complimentary cocktail – strong, sweet rum and spicy ginger in our case – guests have time to chat, before a bell rings to signal the start of dinner. Time for guests to take their seats at the elegant, chintzy table, laid with vintage crockery, mismatched cutlery and antique glasses.

An amuse bouche of ‘mini cuppa soup’ (roasted tomato with coconut sambal) whet our appetites and got the chatter between 18 or so relative strangers going. A well travelled father mixed with a moustached hipster and local pharmacist, all bonding over a shared love of food and interest in people.

Next up was a smoked aubergine croquette with babaganush and a pomegranate dressing. Then a local line caught mackerel, which was a conversation starter and a half – bringing back memories of fishing trips from Brighton Marina and strangely, far flung Bosnian cold remedy involving soaking socks in vinegar (the mackerel was served on a bed on beetroot salad, with leeks and walnuts).

Any hopes CanTina had about keeping leftovers of the slow roasted Plantation pig were dashed as the table rapidly polished it off, not forgetting the dill pilaf with saffron aioli and seasonal leaves.

The rose and yoghurt creams, served with rhubarb and ginger compote, cardamom shortbread and pistachio praline were almost as popular, with just enough room left to squeeze in a chocolate orange petit four and a snifter of dessert wine.

Highly recommended, but get in there quick. Evenings book up well ahead of time.

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The world’s best worst restaurant

The last few weeks have seen quite a flurry of best restaurant lists. From the Godfather, Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best, to spin offs from Jay Rayner (The 20 Best Restaurants), The Telegraph (The Best Restaurants in the World), and Stylist (The Restaurant Hotlist 2013). Everyone seems to have been compiling a list.

And everyone seems to have an opinion. ‘Best’ lists are subjective, after all . And ‘best’ really depend on what you want from a restaurant: to flash your cash; be seen in the latest ‘it’ place; eat the culinary delights rustled up by your chef hero; grab a quick bite on the go; or simply to get a good feed.

Worst, however is a little more set in stone. No one wants a tepid dinner, soup slopped on their lap or to be made to feel that dining at the establishment is an inconvenience for the staff.

Which got me thinking about the worst restaurants I’ve discovered on my travels.

A raclette restaurant in Paris, where sizzling oil was dribbled on us at the table as we chomped through tough meat and over salted cheese. Eugh. The cold, fast food-style broccoli smothered in gloopy garlic sauce in Beijing which was pretty much was inedible. And a fixed price pizza restaurant in Venice, where we were cajoled into ordering extortionate wine and numerous extras, which was nothing short of dire (not to mention a rip off).

But one topped them all. Introducing El Galecon in Casilda, Cuba – the world’s best worst restaurant…

We were playing the yes game. Taking recommendations from locals and seeing where it got us. Beautiful roof terraces, dining on freshly caught fish in a granny’s farmhouse and a rather interesting Swedish-Cuban restaurant had lulled us into a false sense of security.

As our taxi bumped down the dirt track to what can only be described as a shanty town we should have known our luck had run out. And when we pulled up at a deserted pirate themed restaurant with a chef brandishing a cutlass from beneath his frilly shirt, we should have run away.

But we stayed. Forcing down overly fishy fish broth, attempting to chew over cooked (possibly) pork and recoiling in horror at the pound of cheese melted onto a fish fillet. All the time swatting away flies and plotting our escape past the pirate at the door.

Course after course of extras, tasters from the chef and, strangely, a few regulars kept coming. Dragging the meal out.

A few trips to the toilet, to dispose of the fish, and a handbag full of pork fillet later we made our escape. But not until the bill had been proudly presented to us in a miniature, mock treasure chest.

Never again.

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Hutong Hospitality

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Mrs Wu proudly presented a steaming plate of shoots and egg on the neatly laid, fold up table in the bedroom.

The bed, with its garish Mini Mouse bedspread, was pushed to the corner of the room, and the huge TV dominated the rest of the space.

Next came sweet and sour chicken – not the orange glop of the British High Street Chinese takeaway, but a mix of chicken, fresh red chilies, cucumber and crunchy green peppers. Shredded potato, steamed rice and – because it was Winter Solecist and traditionally good luck – dumplings followed.

Watched by the terrapin in the corner, we toasted our guide, local student Lisa, and tucked in. She told us that Mrs Wu has been welcoming guests into her home in Beijing’s Hutong, narrow alleyways, since the Olympics in 2008.

Hundreds of guests had followed before us. All being picked up by rickshaw, guided round the Hutong and taken to her Siheyuans (or courtyard home) for lunch.

Retired from her job in the city’s transport department, Mrs Wu wanted to meet and chat with people from all over the world, and has since rustled up lunch for families, backpackers, businessmen and even diplomats.

Washing lunch down with a local beer, Lisa explained the history of the Hutong; how it sprung up after Ghinggis Khan’s army reduced the city to rubble; how in the 1950s there were over 6,000 passageways but that The Olympics and other ‘improvement’ building work had destroyed thousands of them.

Tha Hutong is now protected, a sought after place for the older generations, but shunned by the young who prefer to live in the flashy, modern apartment blocks of downtown Beijing.

Learning how the boys were the light of the family and got the sunniest rooms, and answering Mrs Wu’s questions on life in London, food in Scotland and the price of rent in Britain, we polished of our shoots and waved her goodbye. Rumbling back into Beijing’s smog on the back of our rickshaw.

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